Finds Most People Use Drugs Without Problems
(c) The Dominion (Wellington, New Zealand), Nov. 2001
Please read this article at the
Dominion's Web Site. It is also
archived and annotated below.
drug use is here to stay and we need to get our heads around this and stop
thinking about prohibiting drugs.
and education is what is needed, not prohibition, says Peter
sociologist and associate Professor at the Centre for Drug Research at the
University of Amsterdam, as he eschews a cup of coffee for a glass of
sparkling mineral water.
never worked with alcohol, he says, neither will it work with drugs. Dr
Cohen, an international drug expert who "hates cannabis" (he
says he belongs to that group which years ago, had fun using it and then
left it behind) is careful about his coffee intake, and says his drug of
choice is alcohol ("I love New Zealand wines"). And no, he
doesn't smoke tobacco.
perhaps an unspoken nod to his research which he says demonstrates that
drugs, of all sorts, are part of everyday life and, for most users, can be
Cohen is in Wellington at the invitation of the Coalition for Cannabis Law
Reform to make a submission to the health select committee's cannabis
inquiry. He says: "For the bulk of drug users – and this is what I
learned in my research into amphetamine, cocaine and cannabis – use is
within our normal integrated lifestyle and I didn't know that when I
started this research . . . how much it is like integrated alcohol
Cohen, 60, has spent 20 years researching drug use, the careers of drug
users, the drug policies and histories of a number of countries and the
methodology of drug use research.
is an adviser to the Dutch Government for the design and development of
the European monitoring centre for drugs and drug addiction in the
European Union and was an adviser to the World Health Organisation global
says that whatever politicians might think, whether they favour
prohibition or legalisation, drug policy will not keep people off drugs.
It's a message that politicians will find difficult to swallow, says Dr
Cohen, "because they think what they say has an influence in people's
that, he says, is as naive as it is ridiculous.
thinking clouds the truth about real drug use and "forces us to
amplify our frightening images even more".
policy, in the end, has little effect. Research has shown that what are
relevant are a society's cultural factors, economic factors, fashions and
levels of urbanisation. These are what determine the proportion of the
population that will use drugs.
says there is no country that has stopped the normalisation of drug use
among its population. Drugs that were meant to be kept out of society have
more or less captured the cultural imagination and come in, despite
focus is, don't go on trying to do the impossible. Try to regulate the use
of drugs as we have done with alcohol."
says many countries did not follow the United States example of trying to
prohibit alcohol. "Wisely so. Instead, they put quality controls on
age limits, access, opening hours of pubs . . . there are all sorts of
regulations around alcohol. That doesn't mean alcohol isn't sometimes a
disturbing factor in our lives . . . but then so is marriage."
he says, was a US invention and was a catastrophe. It didn't work and was
discontinued for alcohol, yet it was retained for all other drugs.
US, he says, "is the Taleban of prohibition; the fundamentalists of
drug prohibition". And it was as a result of severe US pressure that
the global treaties on drugs evolved. But he says the treaties are
toothless, used as an excuse not to progress in drug reform and neglected
when they don't suit a country's interests.
Cohen believes the world is gradually turning its back on prohibition.
Europe, he says, is clearly going the other way. Germany, France and now
Britain are easing drug laws.
says his interest in drug research arose out of studying how societies,
during their historical cultural development, create and construct
"problem", says Dr Cohen, is recreational drug use. In the past
it has been the problems of religion, homosexuality, alcohol, each of
which has been dealt with. Now, he says, Western man is slowly
deconstructing the drug problem just as in most countries it has
deconstructed the homosexuality problem, taking it out of penal law and
bringing it into the range of human freedoms.
same has been done with religion: "Religious freedom is a very young
freedom in Europe. Before the 19th century there were state religions
where you were killed if you did not profess, or in later history, you
didn't get the good jobs."
tend to be educated into a series of assumptions and quasi- knowledge
about drugs which are wrong, he says. In fact, most people will use some
sort of drug within their dominant lifestyles.
says it is a myth to think that cocaine or cannabis or amphetamines cannot
be controlled by users.
long studies of cocaine users – in 1985 and 1991, and a big study of
cannabis users – showed that use only continued for a certain period.
average age in The Netherlands of a cannabis user is from 19 (from 24 for
cocaine) to 35. During this period there are times of lighter use, heavy
use and also abstinence. The same is true of alcohol.
will always be those who over-use drugs, just like those who over-reach
themselves in sport and ruin their bodies. "There is always this
irrational aspect but we can regulate the bulk of human behaviour into
nice lanes," he says.
education about drugs and their risks is a much more productive approach
than prohibition, he says.
which country has got it right? None, in his view. Not Sweden or Australia
and certainly not The Netherlands. He calls Dutch policy schizophrenic
because it only decriminalised demand "but the supply was not
decriminalised so the wholesale production and importation of marijuana is
still a criminal offence. If you allow the population access to drugs,
then allow people to trade it."
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